Powerful. Simply powerful. In November, 1971, the Mariner 9 space orbiter was about to make history. It was rapidly approaching Mars, making it the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. There, it would produce a global mapping of the Martian surface and capture “the first detailed views of the martian volcanoes, Valles Marineris, the polar caps, and the satellites Phobos and Deimos.” This marked a major milestone in the great era of space exploration. The excitement leading up to the moment was palpable.
Just days before the Mariner 9 reached Mars, two of our greatest sci-fi writers, the dearly departed Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, shared the stage with two eminent scientists, Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray, at a symposium held at Caltech. At one point, Bradbury captivated the audience when he read his poem, “If Only We Had Taller Been,” and gave an almost spiritual inflection to the Mariner 9 mission, reminding us of something that Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: the line separating religious epiphany and feelings created by space exploration is awfully, awfully thin.